Noch bevor sie begreifen, wie ihnen geschieht, wird die Polizei sie festnehmen.

English Translation

Before they grasp what is happening to them, the police will arrest them.

nicht wissen, wie einem geschieht - to not know what hit one

Does “was mit einem geschieht” mean the same?

I’d say yes.

You’d have to replace “einem” with “ihnen” though.

“einem” is the unspecified form. The dictionary does not know which pronoun you use. Since you used “sie” earlier, you have to use “ihnen” to refer to them.

"Noch bevor sie begreifen, was mit ihnen geschieht, wird die Polizei sie festnehmen.

In my opinion, the difference is:

  • “wie ihnen geschieht” is used specifically when there is an element of surprise
  • “was mit ihnen geschieht” does not necessarily contain an element of surprise

For example:

  • Many men don’t understand the menstrual cycle. Even though they’ve been married for five years, the husband does not understand the biological process that happens to his wife every month. “Er versteht nicht, was jeden Monat mit seiner Frau geschieht.”
  • A young girl who has her very first period was prepared by her mother, but when it actually happens, she is taken completely unawares. “Das Mädchen versteht nicht, wie ihr geschieht.”

I hope that made it clear.

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